Chinese Checkers

Recently I posted on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in Florence (see This reminded me of our visit to the Shanghai museum last November. After our visit to Tibet we had a little time left in Shanghai and decided to spend it in various ways.

First, we soared by a very fast lift (elevator) to the top of the Jinmao Tower. It’s truly spectacular architecture with wide views over the city:

Jinmao means ‘golden prosperity’ so it’s truly a monument to China’s present golden age, at least as far as industrial production is concerned. The tower, which in some respects echoes New York’s Chrysler building of 1931, dates from 1999, has eighty stories and is 1,380 feet tall. It’s not the tallest skyscraper in China, however. That record is held by the nearby Shanghai tower which surpassed it at 2,073 ft. in 2015 and is the world’s tallest building as far as usable floor space is concerned.


(Jinmao tower on left, Shanghai tower in centre)

However the Jinmao tower was tall enough for us and it has an amazing hollow centre which contains one of the highest internal atriums in the world.


Its’s incredible to think that twenty years ago all this area of Shanghai was largely occupied by marshland and paddy fields .

Second, we visited the old town which is a shopper’s paradise especially if you are buying tea. It’s also the best place to eat delicious Xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings).

We could escape from the urban bustle into the peaceful atmosphere of the Yuyu (happiness) gardens which are highly characteristic of this part of China with its pavilions and rocks. The gardens have a long history and were started in 1559 during the Ming dynasty by Pan Yunduan, the governor of Sichuan province, as a present to his aged father Pan En who had been governor of Shanghai. It was truly wonderful to find this haven in the heart of Shanghai’s megalopolis.

In the centre of the gardens we attended a fine open-air concert:

Third, we ventured on the extensive Shanghai metro system to reach the fabulous Shanghai museum, perhaps the finest repository of Chinese art in the world. The museum’s architecture is most original being based on the shape of an ancient bronze cooking pot called a ding. The building is round and set on a square base echoing the traditional Chinese idea of the world as having a round sky and a square earth.

Visiting everything in the museum, which was opened in 1993, seemed a daunting task at first. The exhibits on its five stories, however, were well labelled and beautifully displayed. The sections were classified according to themes and materials used: bronze,

(Noticed the Ding on which the museum is architecture is based in the last photo?)






seals, coins, furniture

and minorities

.I was particularly touched by the Marquis Yi’s ceremonial bells (bhianzong) given to King Li as a ‘thankyou’ present for some land given to him after a good fighting record. How do we know? Yi’s name and the Chinese for thankyou are inscribed on the bells. These carillon-like bells are still playable after over two thousand five hundred years! This is what they sound like:

Our visit to the Shanghai museum was a wonderful extra to our adventures in China and Tibet. In the evening we had a scrumptious last supper on Chinese soil at the chic Astor House Hotel once favoured by such celebrities as Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Chaplin:

Next morning we were off to the airport on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev (magnetic levitation) travelling at speeds above 400 kph.

Undoubtedly we shall return soon to this part of the world for there is so much more to see and explore and it’s all changing so fast just like our train journey to the airport.

Which reminds me: if you are craving for Xiaolongbao there are some delicious ones to be had in a Chinese eatery (Ni Hao) just round the corner from the Palazzo Blu in Pisa.


Italian Blue Skies and Blue Palaces

Pisa’s Palazzo Blu is continuing to gain ever greater reputation for the imaginative exhibitions it holds there.

(For previous exhibitions do look at my posts at:

The current main exhibition is that on Salvador Dali and is called ‘Il sogno del classico’ (the classical dream). It continues until the end of February.

Dali is such a multi-faceted artist that one can never have too many exhibitions on him. The theme of this one is based on what the great master said: ‘learn how to paint like the old masters. After that you can do anything you like and everyone will respect you.’

The majority of the works, indeed, reflect the great Italian renaissance painters, in particular Michelangelo and Raphael. There are also 102 brilliant xylographic illustrations Dali did for an edition of Dante’s divine comedy (commissioned by the Italian government in 1950) and for Cellini’s autobiography. (Photography is not allowed at the main exhibition so I have borrowed these pictures courtesy of the Palazzo Blu).

It’s quite pointless to start one’s painting career as a pseudo-abstractionist. Learning the proportions, the chiaroscuros, the poses, which form the basis of figurative art, is essential. Early pictures show how Dali started off in impressionist key as, indeed, did Picasso.

Don’t’ miss out on two other exhibitions at the Palazzo Blu:

  1. Chinese stories as depicted by Chen Jian Hong born in Tianjin in the north of the country.

This runs until 5th February 2017 and is quite delightful.

  1. The Arno flood which also tragically hit Pisa on 4th November 1966 (although the Florence devastation is the one largely remembered by most people today).

If you still manage to see more after these three exhibitions then why not visit the Palazzo Blu’s permanent exhibition which is free. This was further expanded in 2013 and presents the interior of an aristocratic Pisan palace with its furnishings and decorations to perfection and a wonderful collection of paintings including an Artenisia Gentileschi.

On the first floor there’s an excellent  collection of mediaeval paintings:

It’s remarkable to think that this palace, once the home of Giulio Rosselmini Gualandi family until the 1970’s, was in a state of near dilapidation until the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa purchased the building in 2001 and opened it to the public for the first time in 2008.

Opening times are:

Mon-Fri 10 am – 7 pm, Sat, Sun and holidays 10 a to 8 pm

Truly, the Palazzo Blu with its original aquamarine exterior colour is a worthy competitor to Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, in terms of the presentation and interest of its temporary exhibitions.

(Incidentally, it’s essential to visit the current Palazzo Strozzi exhibition too for it’s dedicated until January 22nd) to the works of probably China’s most creative and politically active artist, Ai Weiwei.)

It’s great to see two major Chinese artists’ exhibitions near us, especially when we had such a fascinating time during our first visit to that country so recently.


Francis and Cecilia

Lovers of early music (i.e. some of the best, most exciting music ever written) should remember for next year that the 21st Festival Toscano di Musica Antica has been in full swing in Pisa and ended this Sunday 28th August.

Thanks to a friend I was reminded of this superb festival and by 7 pm was entering the glorious cloister of the church of san Francesco in whose chapter house the first concert was to be held.

The festival’s title this year was ‘Bach forever’ and was chosen by its artistic director, Carlo Ipata, whose Auser (ancient name for Serchio river) band has become one of Italy’s premiere period music ensembles.


‘Bach forever’, for Bach never dies and if our solar system implodes then an exo-planet may well receive the sound contents of Voyager launched in 1977 and which includes the Maestro’s Brandenburg Concerto no 2.

The chapter house has some beautiful frescoes by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, a late gothic painter from Florence illustrating scenes from the life of Christ and dating from 1392.

They made an impressive backcloth to our first concert which was a performance, on harpsichord, of Bach’s three part inventions or sinfonia written as didactic pieces for his sons and students. As his introduction states:

My pieces are an honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard  are shown a clear way not only 1. To learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, 2. to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good ideas but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition.

Never could such academically titled pieces sound more enjoyable, for Bach is the supreme combiner of erudition and entertainment and they were played with  fluency by the young Carlo Pernigotti.

As an encore Carlo played a moving piece by Froberger, a predecessor greatly admired by Bach, dedicated to the memory of a friend who’d died in a domestic accident. Pernigotti stated that he felt that, in the present tragic time that Italy finds itself, this piece, called a tombeau, would be a suitable closure to his concert. Its plangent harmonies and deep sentiments were totally appropriate. Indeed, ever more so since his friend, the lutenist Blancrocher, fell to his death down a flight of steps which collapsed, an event – depicted by an eerily descending scale – which happened to several of the victims of Amatrice and adjoining villages.

During the concert’s interval an ‘apericena’ (dinner with aperitivo) was served courtesy of the l’alba (dawn) association. We were treated to farro dishes with fish sauce and as much prosecco as we desired. L’alba is a laudable association which aims at furthering autonomy for disadvantaged people. It does this through various means, the main one being catering. It has a bathing establishment called ‘Big Fish’ at Marina di Pisa, sheltered flats for helping people towards autonomy, art-therapy courses, ceramics workshops and restaurants and cafes serving natural products prepared under the supervision of professional chefs. For more information visit their web site at

Italy works largely through voluntary associations. We can see this is the situation around Amatrice but we can also see this in our local area where volunteer ambulances and first aid services are run by unpaid, enthusiastic persons. While the politicians gobble up the people’s taxes the people who truly run Italy are its voluntary associations.

(Incidentally, there’s a similar type of restaurant in piazza San Francesco, Lucca. The food is delicious and it’s enhanced by the fact that one is helping people who’ve suffered traumas to re-establish themselves. I remember a similar place in Woolwich London SE called the citizen’s gallery. I wonder if it is still functioning).

After a taste of south Italian Amari at a corner bar we wended our way to the church of Santa Cecilia (who appropriately is the patron saint of music.).

The Saint Cecilia church is another of those disgracefully neglected but very beautiful churches which those who can tear themselves away from the Piazza dei Miracoli will be able to enjoy. Founded around 1103 Santa Cecilia is a single nave church graced by a double lancet window around which are sited those rare Islamic ceramics one can find in a few other places in our area (e.g. at San Cassiano). The campanile, like Saint Francis’ church, is propped on top of the roof and is supported internally by a columnar structure. This is an excellent solution to the scarcity of land for a separate campanile and without sacrificing the church’s internal congregational space.

The altar is crowned by a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia by Salimbeni dated 1607.

Tthe best feature of the church is its acoustical property which glorified the wonderful concert we attended with Carlo Ipata’s Auser Musici and the absolutely unmissable Roberta Invernizzi, a soprano of immense virtuosistic drive I had been introduced in last Year’s Barga Opera festival. (To see and hear more of this gorgeously passionate singer go to ). Meanwhile here are some snippets of what Roberta sang at Santa Cecilia:

The program consisted mainly of arias from Gasparini’s operas. As in the case of the harpsichord recital we had seats on the front row and almost felt that she was singing just for us. It was an ecstatic experience for me and I forgot the stifling heat which summer Pisa generates, particularly within its buildings.

Carlo Ipata explained that this concert was part of a project to issue a new CD of Gasparini’s vocal music.

In case you haven’t come across Gasparini, neither did I until my friend introduced me to him.  Briefly, Gasparini is almost a local lad, having been born in Camaiore in 1661. His teacher was no less than Corelli under whom he studied in Rome and where his first opera ‘Roderico’ was produced. In 1702 he went to Venice and worked for ’La Pieta’ before he left and gave the job to Antonio Vivaldi. Returning to Rome in 1720 Gasparini produced his last big opera ‘Tigrane’.

J.S Bach appreciated Gasparini and copied his Missa canonica for use in Leipzig. Gasparini became teacher of, among others, Marcello, Quantz and Domenico Scarlatti.

It’s quite astonishing how such an important musical figure could have become completely unknown until rediscovered by the likes of Carlo Ipata.

Barga opera has been crucial in bringing Gasparini back to the stage with his ‘Bajazet’. (See my post on that production at

The evening concluded with La Invernizzi singing a seductive cantata by another composer who is constantly rising in my estimation, Nicola Porpora.

I could tell you more about Porpora, who gave Handel some tough competition while in London, but will spare you. Just watch and listen to this production of Porpora’s ‘Semiramide riconosciuta’ if you have not yet been converted to his luscious music.

Thankyou Roberta and thankyou Carlo for bringing back to us music which for far too long has been lying under piles of  dust and now is finally able to witness a sunlit resurrection and new life under your immaculate musicianship.

A More Interesting Way of Getting to Pisa Airport

When you are going from the Lucchesia to Pisa airport to fly back to Brexit Britain why not make the journey a little more exciting?

An occasion arose for me to do this the other day and a detour to Marina di Pisa was well-worth it.

First, we stopped at the ancient church of San Piero a Grado which dates back to at least the eighth century. It marks the spot where Saint Peter is traditionally supposed to have first landed on Italian soil from whence he travelled to Rome and to his eventual upside-down crucifixion.

The church is unusual in having an apse at each end and of using roman capitals for its columns. It is, thus a truly basilican plan in the classical sense and exudes an extraordinary atmosphere of peace and veneration. Surrounded by large lawns San Piero is one of the earliest examples of that Pisan Romanesque which found its apotheosis in Pisa’s own cathedral.

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One of the several unusual exterior features of San Piero a Grado, which is now classed as a minor basilica and titled ‘messenger of peace’, are the Islamic plates inserted in the upper lunettes. I always find that these decorations are a sort of metaphor that Christian and Islam can co-exist peacefully.

Ironically, the campanile was demolished by the Germans (although it was recently reconstructed to about a third of its height) on their retreat from the allied advance to the gothic line because they thought the enemy would use it as a look-out post over the flat Pisan plain. Ironically, because here it was one Christian-based culture fighting it out against another Christian-based one…

The church’s interior, which is very spacious and is crowned by a wooden truss roof, consists of a nave and two aisles.

The upper walls are almost completely covered by frescos which are more faded on one side than the other, probably because of the greater amount of sunlight they received. They were painted by Deodato Orlandi from Lucca in the early 14th century and illustrate, in addition to the life of Saint Peter, the lives of St Paul, Constantine and St Sylvester.


(To the left, St Peter being crucified head-downwards because he didn’t want to be proud enough to emulate Christ’s crucifixion)

Below these frescoes are portraits of all the popes up to that time.

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At the west end of the basilica is a large ciborium, or canopy over an altar, in 15th gothic century style which marks the place where St Peter delivered  his first sermon upon landing on the Italian shore.

In case you were wondering what happened to the sea all this area was once a lagoon and the church was built on a higher level overlooking it. Since that time the sea has silted up and is now a good five miles away.

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(Map showing the former lagoon)

Moving to more secular matters we travelled on to Marina di Pisa which a remarkably quiet, relaxed and family-oriented seaside resort quite unlike the worldly hub-bub of Viareggio. Once the favourite hangouts of artists and composers like Puccini and D’Annunzio, it has seen a recent revival of its fortunes thanks to the construction of a relatively inoffensive new marina with some lovely landscaped coastal-plant gardens around it.

There is an adequate public beach which I once remember as having no sand on it as persistent erosion had swept it all away. Happily today the sandy beach has been built up again and it’s really pleasant to lie on it and have a cooling swim before the hordes of summer crowds really start moving in for the High Holiday season.

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The sea promenade is lined with a variety of restaurants of varying costs. We found a friendly one and were served well with mussels, cutlets chips, melon and ham.

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On a more sombre note there’s a memorial park with a propeller belonging to the Hercules aircraft from the nearby military airport and which was shot down with all its Italian crew members during the Bosnian war in 1992.

Art nouveau aficionados will have a great time admiring some very elegant villas. And the the estuary of the Arno (Bocca d’Arno) just to the north of the Marina is a delighful spot with a fish market and the traditional retoni (big nets) used to lower into the water and catch a variety of fish.. (See my post on this at )

Unfortunately the airport timetable caught up on us and we had to leave without really giving a look this attractive place with its fin-de-siècle atmosphere deserves. What would be a British seaside resort equivalent for it, I wonder? Worthing perhaps? There was no British equivalent, however for the wonderful sunshine we experienced before heading on to meet our guest at the airport.

A Big Network at Marina di Pisa

The Arno has again made world-wide news. This time, however, the flooding has been not caused by the river but by the water board whose leaking pipes eroded the Oltrarno embankment in Florence just to the right of the Ponte Vecchio and caused a massive crevasse to appear and eat up at least a score of cars. The embankment wall, however, fortunately withstood. Now works costing at least five million euros will have to be initiated and completed before the autumn rains. At the same time the usual recriminations have started and every one is blaming the other,


The situation in Florence is a far cry from the peaceful estuary of the river Arno where retoni or giant nets lie suspended waiting to be lowered and catch their fill of fish, mainly whitebait but often larger varieties.


In August 2007 when Marina di Pisa had not yet received its new port the situation was even more peaceful. I remember enjoying an afternoon of conviviality and good eating with friends there in 2007. It was fun lowering the nets and then seeing what they would catch. It was mostly whitebait which we then barbecued and deliciously ate.

The sunset was brilliant too!



My Date with Virgo

I’d heard about her when helping to make the English version of a film about Cascina. She’s the Gravitational wave Interferometer, called VIRGO, which will tell us so much more about how and when things began. Einstein posited, as part of his theory of general relativity in 1916, the existence of gravitational waves in addition to  electromagnetic ones.


Marconi had famously discovered how to use the electromagnetic ones and his experiments at Poldu, Cornwall produced the first wireless signal across the Atlantic.


Yet even with powerful telescopes of both the optical and radio variety we can ‘see’ just five per cent of the universe. The remaining 95% consists of dark matter and black holes. How could anyone possibly measure and observe them? Precisely through the interferometer which picks up any gravitational wave produced by spectacular events, including the collision of binary pulsar stars and, indeed, the original ‘big bang’ itself. How does it do this? A laser beam is divided into two, each one fired through separate vacuum sealed tubes, 3 kilometres long and set in an L shape on the flat alluvial plain of the Arno near Cascina The two separate beams are then returned to a finishing point and if there is any unphasing or discrepancy in their return then this signifies that they have been ‘interfered with’ by a gravitational wave. Or have they? That’s the question. Much of the research at Virgo is spent on filtering out redundant vibrations caused by traffic, earth tremors etc.


(Virgo as seen from the air)

What happens when a gravitational wave hits our planet’s space-time continuum? There’s an infinitesimal change in our appearance and the appearance of objects. We and they oscillate the width of a hair’s breadth in length and breadth – such is the sensitivity of the measurements to be recorded. Fortunately I have yet to meet a person who confesses they know how it feels to be hit by a gravitational wave.

With the mind pulsating with space-time and waves I was privileged to join a specialist group last Saturday at Virgo.

First, we were treated to a seminar where Prof Dattilo introduced us to the concepts involved. It was nice to have two of his children participating in the event and there was plenty of time for questions afterwards.

We then ventured into the control room where scientists work out the data received from the interferometer. As the visit was after working hours the room was empty but there was some evidence of the hard work involved here.

Finally, we were given an exclusive entry into the actual instrument itself. It seemed a bit like a set from Doctor Who, I thought. Here are kept the mirrors used to divide and reflect the laser beams lengthening them from 3 to 120 kilometres in length. It’s all done by mirrors as they say. The price of setting up and maintaining this equipment, originally set up in 2002 and updated this year, goes into the millions of Euros

(Virgo’s main control room where the reflecting and dividing mirrors are kept)

(The north tunnel of Cascina’s gravitational wave interferometer showing the three-kilometre-long tube through which the laser beams travel)

Italy isn’t just about frescoes, food, fashion and fabulous scenery. It’s about a leading cutting edge in astronomy and astrophysics. The Italian VIRGO (so called because it particularly concentrates on the Virgo constellation with its dense array of binary pulsar and neutron stars) forms part of the international team which includes EGO (European Gravitational Observatory involving five EU countries including France) and LIGO (the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory which, exactly one hundred years after Einstein’s prophetic theory, has discovered positive evidence for the presence of gravitational waves.  As Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project stated “We have detected gravitational waves. It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”) I

To rephrase the great poet Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton:

Nature and nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, “Let LIGO be!” and all was light.

Except, of course that we are talking about the darkest of matter, black holes themselves.

Let us trust that gravitational waves will in the future help not only to understand the universe in greater depth but ourselves too. For that’s where the true origin of all our species lies: in the deepest mystery of the cosmos. Research carries on apace in this field and in 2034 we shall see LISA space gravitational wave interferometer launched. The principles are the same as those of VIRGO except that the ‘tunnels’ here are not three  kilometres long but five million instead! What discoveries shall be made then I wonder. Hope you can wait that long…

Thinking about which I imagined a journey to an exo-planet and came up with this:




Gigantic cliffs stand peaked like wings of gulls

and cut through sky of indigo. Two moons

lie hung upon translucent pregnancy:

this is the planet where there is no sound.


At dusk spiced crimson rocks drum granite chords

which penetrate hard entrails of stilled earth,

bronze sands vibrate with fluent overtones,

ionosphere drops ultrasonic waves.


Here is the summit and below hot seas

of sapphire circle coastlines, solarized

and drawn towards cerise-soaked longitudes:

the night is stretched out like a waking cat.



PS Cascina itself is a delightful place to visit. See my post at for more details.




Artistic Venues in Pisa and Calcinaia

Blogs have been around for some time. Although the term was first coined by Jorn Barger in 1999 (‘web log’, later abbreviated to ‘blog’), there were several precursors: bulletin boards and newsgroups started back in the 1980’s. I wish I’d begun blogging earlier. However, going back through my emails I see that there’s a vague attempt to describe the photographs I was taking and the activities I was doing. When it’s been raining almost continuously for the past three days there’s no better indoor pastime to occupy oneself than going through one’s photographs from the past.

May 20th 2007 was a day celebrating women artists with two main exhibition centres. The first was held at the limonaia (conservatory where lemon plants are protected in winter) at Palazzo Ruschi in Pisa. After the usual story of decline and fall of aristocratic families the palazzo was acquired by Hewlett-Packard, the computer company, in 1990. They restored the limonaia to its former glory but subsequently moved on, allowing the city of Pisa buy the limonaia and use it for exhibitions and conferences.

The palace’s gardens are quite beautiful and filled with a variety of exotic trees and plants. I particularly liked the statue of Flora raised upon a dolphin on one of the gardens’ water basins.

The theme of the exhibition at the limonaia was ‘Amore e Psyche’ (Cupid and Psyche) and the quality of the contemporary art was exceptionally high.


There were many fine art works on display and, as usual for these events, a great ‘rinfresco’ (free buffet).

I bought a picture of the Pisa riverfront from this artist.

The picture is signed M.P.5. I regret to say that the artist is now no longer with us.


From Pisa I moved to Calcinaia where other exhibitions of women’s art were held. I particularly liked these works:

Calcinaia’s symbol is its tower built by the Upezzinghi family.  Dating from the thirteenth century the tower was part of the fortifications guarding the river crossing. Like Pisa’s limonaia it fell into abandonment until rescued and restored in 1999 by the comune for use as an exhibition centre. Incidentally, Uguccionella, the mother of Count Ugolino mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, was born in Calcinaia.

The views over the town from the top of the tower are pretty:

It was a lovely day in a lovely place and the sunset over the Arno running past this town was beautiful.







Il Gombo – Pisa’s Ex-Presidential Seaside Villa and Park

The Tenuta di San Rossore (San Rossore estate) is a natural park situated between Pisa and the Tyrhennian coast. It’s a truly wonderful area of typical Mediterranean ‘macchia’ and forest vegetation.  Away from the seaside resorts of the Versilia, San Rossore provides a valuable insight into how the coastal area from the river Magra in the north to the Arno in the south once looked like. It is 4,800 hectares in area and contains a very wide range of vegetation from evergreens to deciduous. High sand dunes separate it from the sea and the park hosts a large variety of wildlife including deer, wild boar and many birds (best watched during the wintering period and the spring migration).

There are information boards in the park showing the fauna and flora one can spot in this beautiful natural park. These are also useful for expanding one’s Italian vocabulary as far as natural history is concerned.

Historically, the park was owned in the middle Ages by the Chapter of canons at Pisa.  In the eighteenth century the House of Lorraine, who succeeded the Medici in the government of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, started reforestation with the planting of oak, ash, elm, holm oak and pine trees to meet the growing need for timber. The Lorraines also began a drainage scheme with the building of new canals to reclaim part of the wetlands.


With the unification of Italy, the Royal Savoy family received the estate. They modified the existing buildings, built new facilities, and made it their summer residence and exclusive hunting reserve. Almost all these buildings were destroyed in the fierce fighting around Pisa in World War II. When the monarchy fell, the estate formed part of the new republic and in 1957 became the Italian president’s summer resort.

In 1999 the president donated the estate to Tuscany and since that date it has been freely accessible to the public.


One can also visit various buildings including the Rotunda, the old Stables (where exhibitions are held (in 2007 the exhibitors were Mario Rodio, Franco Cecconi, Luciano Betti, Luciano da Livorno, Alessandro Ceccotti , Mara Corfini, Enrico Nazi, Pour Abdolah Firuzeh, Alvaro Torti) and the racetrack where it’s possible to hire a horse:

All vehicle must be left in the car park next to the race-track. There are some very characteristic ways of moving around the park by public transport:

I loved these ‘animal’ park benches:

In the centre of the park is a building called ‘Il Gombo’. Previously this used to be the summer resort and hunting lodge of the kings of Italy and was built in a chalet-like style. Completely destroyed in WWII the villa was rebuilt in modern style and, until the end of the last millennium, housed the president on his summer holidays.

It will be remembered that when ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Italy in 1999 (he always enjoys his Tuscan holidays) he was guest of the president at il Gombo and public access to five kilometers of  the beach was prohibited for security reasons. This caused widespread protests and the government relented at Blair’s request and reopened the beach. Shortly afterwards the estate was definitively handed over to the Tuscany region for public enjoyment. (For the whole story see )

President Gronchi ordered the present building at the end of the fifties. It was designed by architects Amedeo Lucchichenti and Vincenzo Monaco (who designed the Olympic village for the 1960 games held in Rome) and is an iconic building of its time. Suspended on steel cantilevers, the villa encloses a square courtyard and is divided into public and private quarters. I was amazed to find that I could freely wander around in it without any supervision.

In May 2007 I was privileged to attend a concert given by the Fattori Trio at the villa.The concert, organised by my friend Giovanni Ranieri Fascetti, who also gave readings between the concert items, was a great delight.

Giovanni, is the curator of the Fortess of Vicopisano – described in my post at – and the Temple of Minerva Medica – described in my post at – besides being an inspirational teacher and the author of several important books on local history. (See my post at ).

Playing in the villa’s courtyard the trio, consisting of Annarosa Carnieri (piano), Laura Sarti (violin) and Giuseppe Cecchin (cello), performed a programme consisting of both classical and modern music.

The concert was part of the European Day of Parks which San Rossore also celebrated:

The trio is still going strong and not too long ago performed in the Garfagnana as part of the Muse del Serchio summer festival programme.

The whole Gombo area is a delight and a wonderful escape from the often crowded-out touristy areas of Pisa.

The estate is open to the public at the following times:

November – March from 8 am to 13.30 pm
April – October from 8 am to 5.30 pm

There is a nice refreshment point by the old stables. Don’t miss out on il Gombo’s ‘festa del parco’ which is on now. Full details are at

Something About Cascina

From 2009 to 2010 I had a contract for teaching English classes at the then recently inaugurated Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was a fun time, the students were great and I was very glad to be teaching in a building which incorporated all the latest anti-seismic wave safety features.


The only snag was that because of the Institute’s wide spread of teaching locations staff meetings had to be held at Cascina which is a good hour’s drive away from Bagni di Lucca.

Cascina also comes to mind because in 2010 I collaborated in a film on Cascina which is a town a little to the east of Pisa.

I still have my English version of that film script. It starts:

Càscina is situated in the centre of an abundant, thriving and populous region, amid fertile fields and vineyards in a splendid plain, on the ducal road from Pisa to Florence, between the river Arno and the Rinònico drainage canal, two miles east of the village of Fornacétte, eight miles east of Pisa and fourteen miles north-west of Leghorn.”

So begins the reverend Francesco Conti’s book “Càscina and its environs” published in 1912

The origin of the name “Càscina” is still uncertain. Some historians believe it derives from the ancient Etruscan settlement of Càsne, others consider it comes from the river of the same name. That river is first referred to in 935, while the earliest mention of the name “Càscina” goes back to a parchment dated 26 June 750 AD, which cites the donation of a house to the church of Saint Mary of Càssina.

Four centuries later, in a parchment dated 27 October 1142, (now preserved in the archbishop’s archives in Pisa), Balduìno, archbishop of Pisa, gave some inhabitants in the Càscina territory the assignment of building the castle and town.

In medieval times Càscina was already a fortified town, with a rectangular-shaped castle, encircled by twelve towers, connected by low walls surrounded by a wide moat.

Documents from 1270, mention a bell tower and a fortified moat, excavated south of the Arno, to defend Pisan territory and allow for the outflow of water from the Arno in case of need.

In the following century the walls were again heightened, the towers strengthened and two town gates built, one towards Florence and one towards Pisa.

During the Pisan Republic the city of Càscina was a loyal supporter of the Emperor against the Luccans and Florentines.

It remained an ally of the Pisan Republic until July 29th 1364, when the Florentines succeeded in defeating Pisa in the bloody and brutal battle of Càscina, celebrated by Michelangelo Buonarroti (from whose hand just a few preparatory sketches have been preserved) and now viewable only through Vasari’s fresco of the battle, in the Hall of the Five Hundred in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio.


I won’t carry on any further except to suggest that Cascina is yet another of those Italian towns one by-passes on the way to a location one thinks is more important.

Cascina, in fact, is a delightful town with an abundance of historic sites including some of the best romanesque churches in Tuscany, a thriving market, a very interesting furniture museum. (In the sixties it became the apex of Italian furniture manufacturing), and some very lovely surrounding countryside not least of which are the Pisan hills.

The script concluded with the following:

Toward the end of the 20th century, the National Institute of Nuclear Physics chose the ideal site for a study it was involved in for some time with the similar French Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in the Càscina area. “Virgo” was born from this study on July 23rd 2003. Not far from the hamlets of Latignano and Santo Stefano di Macerata, in open country to the south of the heavily congested road traffic-police call the “Arnàccio”, a high-tech achievement is located. “Virgo” is an interferomètric antenna dedicated to the study (and the verification of the existence) of gravitational waves. It looks like an L-shaped structure with two perpendicular arms, each one two miles long. (These dimensions put it in first place in Europe and second in the world). Inside these two arms is a vacuum-sealed tube, within which a laser beam runs. The measurement of the movement (even though infinitesimal) of the mirrors reflecting this beam is able to confirm the presence (or absence) of gravitational waves. Scientists, from Einstein onward, have always believed in the existence of the waves and in the fact that they could contribute to an explanation of the universe’s evolution. It is for this reason that one of the most fascinating questions that man has asked himself “What is the origin of our world?” could receive an answer from Càscina and its territory.


Yesterday, in conjunction with the USA, scientists are claiming a stunning discovery in their quest to fully understand gravity by observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth and thus opening a new era for astronomy. Perhaps we are now able to answer that question “What is the origin of our world?”.


I thought of the contribution of Cascina in Pisa in solving this conundrum and felt that two great geniuses of the past would have been over the moon with this discovery. The first breakthrough for astronomy was, of course, carried out by Galileo Galilei with his famous gravitational experiment carried out from the leaning tower of Pisa and his use of the telescope to discover the Medicean planets and, of course, to establish that the sun is the centre of our solar system and not the previous ego-centric earthling presumption. ‘E pur si muove.’ (And yet it – the earth – moves)


The second genius who would have been truly excited over the confirmed discovery of gravitational waves is Albert Einstein who predicted them as part of his now hundred-year-old theory of general (as distinct from specific) relativity. It’s again a theory which, like Galileo’s (and let’s add Newton’s apple for good measure), rotates around the field of gravitation.


The team confirming this immense discovery is international and one of the centres is precisely the one in Cascina. It’s part of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration and will ultimately lead to the discovery of the origin of the universe through the Big Bang without which occurrence I would not be at this moment be scribbling this in a remote village on a particularly misty part of a planet called Earth.

As Prof David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project stated “We have detected gravitational waves. It’s the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we’ve been deaf.”

To rephrase the great poet Alexander Pope’s epitaph on Newton:

Nature and nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, “Let LIGO be!” and all was light.

Except, of course that we are talking about the darkest of matter, black holes themselves.

No wonder I couldn’t feel gravitational waves at the Istituto Comprensivo at Gallicano. It was too seismically protected! Let us hope, however, that gravitational seismic waves will in the future help not only to understand the universe in greater depth but ourselves too. For that’s where the true origin of all our species lies: in the deepest mystery of the cosmos.

Short Legs Can, Can Make a Fine Artist

The entrance leads into a corridor upon whose walls are projected films of another Paris – a fin-de-siècle city not yet eaten up by the motorcar and where ladies rarely showed their ankles. Stiff’-collared men with boaters, bowlers or top hats stroll nonchalantly with their walking sticks. Under the Eiffel tower gleam art-nouveau buildings of the 1900 Exposition Universelle (the Eiffel tower, of course, belongs to the 1889 exhibition).


The scene is set for another exhibition, that of one of the greatest painters and graphic artists of late nineteenth century Paris and, indeed, of all time. ‘If I had not got shorter legs I would not have become an artist”, he said. He also proclaimesd, “The place I feel most at ease in is a brothel.” Recognize him?

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If you do and you appreciate his extraordinary contribution to the world of art – over 300 works produced in less than ten years when he succumbed, aged just 37, to his favourite indulgences, drink and sex (syphilis contracted with one of his ‘amies’) then you’d better hurry to Pisa’s Palazzo Blu where Toulouse Lautrec’s luci e ombre di Montmartre is on show until the 14th of February.

That Saint Valentine’s date commemorates too Lautrec’s abiding love of life and his utterly sensitive and totally unpornographic way of entering into the intimacies of women’s day-to-day lives: women washing themselves in a tin bath, combing their hair, uncorsetting themselves, loving each other, preparing themselves for their clients – top hats artfully placed on delicate lingerie – and, of course, performing in one of the great night spots of the time the Moulin de la Gallette and the Moulin Rouge among the most notorious of them. The great actresses and can-can dancers really come to life here and not just Jane Avril or black elbow-length gloved Yvette Guilbert!

The Palazzo Blu has since its inception in 2009 set itself up as one of Tuscany’s most intelligent exhibition spaces and one which bears easy comparison with venues like Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi. Last year it was Modigliani (see our post at ) but since that the beautifully restored baroque palazzo re-opened its doors to the public in 2008 it has covered such topics as Chagall and the Mediterranean, Rosellini and Egypt, Galileo Galilei Mirò in Pisa, Picasso, Kandinsky and Schoenberg, plus hosting of conferences, book presentations, workshops and courses.

The palazzo is just a ten minutes’ walk from the station, has a great bookshop and caffé and is now surely as integrated in the Pisan landscape as its leaning tower.

To return to the exhibition: the atmosphere of what were once known as the naughty nineties in puritan UK is fully savoured here. There’s even the poster T-L did for the first performance of Wilde’s Salome (banned in the UK because of its theatrical representation of a biblical subject);  and posters form a large part of what’s on show, including one for the English cycle chain firm Simpson.

Lithography was T-L’s forte and many of the limited editions have his own notes and dedications written on them. Although certainly not uncrowded I was able to truly be at nose’s length from the extraordinary characters depicted often with just a few strokes and with a japonaise feel of colour (especially ‘flat’ colour) and asymmetric composition (T-L knew loved Japanese artists like Hokusai and Utamaro) and feel every line and live every colour in the display.

Intelligently, the exhibition is divided into five sections:

  1. Life in Montmartre
  2. The theatre and music halls
  3. Posters for shows and product adverts
  4. The maisons closes (brothels, or more eloquently in Italian, case di tolleranza,)
  5. The circus, horses and friends

Even more shrewdly dispersed among T-L’s works are those of at least another contemporary. I was particularly taken by the Italian Zandomeneghi who lived in Paris at the same time. Who can’t forget this gorgeous girl, now is eternally awakening up at Florence’s Palazzo Pitti’s modern art gallery?


And here are a few more from this Italian Parisian. What about an exhibition on him soon?

It was a dismally rainy day last Saturday so what better thing to do than to seek refuge in the colour and life of the work of the prodigiously fine artistry of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It had certainly been a long time since the last exhibition we’d seen of T-L (R.A. London) and we had really been missing him!

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Don’t forget to consult the Palazzo Blu web site regularly at

if you don’t want to be disappointed next time!

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